An external hard drive is a great way to store huge amounts of data and images – far more than can be saved to most laptops or tablets. As such, many people find themselves needing the extra space that only a serious hard drive with terabytes of data can provide.
Most laptops come with limited amounts of space, around 500GB or less, as part of an internal solid state drive (SSD). External hard drives are a great way to store or back up extra files, especially photos and videos.
For those who work remotely or abroad, they also ensure you can keep key files on hand without having to tote around a large laptop.
For a secure storage system of your very own, here is everything you need to know before you buy as well as a round-up of the best external hard drives you can buy in 2020:
1. WD MyBook Duo 6TB
Size: 3 TB, 4 TB, 6 TB, 8 TB, 10 TB, 12 TB, 16 TB, 20 TB, 24 TB
Sometimes you will just need that extra space. The WD MyBook Duo range builds up from 3 TB to 24 TB, with super-fast read and write speeds of around 360 MB per second. It's even RAID-O ready straight from the box. With two USB 3.0 ports, it can also be used at a docking station
Size: 1 TB
This external drive offers something a little different in terms of security. The Buffalo MiniStation Extreme has NFC security encryption, meaning it uses a near field communication device such as your smartphone to unlock. It is rugged and a little heavier than some other drives, at 230g, but it does have a drive speed of 7,200rpm and has a read speed of 120 MB per second.
3. Toshiba Canvio Basics 2 TB
Size: 2 TB
On the cheaper end of standard hard drives, Toshiba's Canvio does what needs doing. There is nothing showy about the look, but this Toshiba drive is about the practicality rather than something to show off on your desk.
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The 2 TB version is great value, offering plenty of space for just under £70. It has an average read speed of between 100 and 112 MB per second.
Size: 1 TB, 2TB, 4TB, 5TB
Need the next level in external storage? You will want to turn to a USB-C connected drive. This sleek design from LaCie features a USB-C port for faster connectivity, great if you use the new Macbook or Macbook Pro.
While this does make for theoretically faster data transfers, it can become an issue since the lone USB -C port on the Macbook means you will need an adapter to charge and use the drive at the same time. The USB-C also cannot alter the physical speed at which the LaCie writes or reads data, which is around 130 MB per second.
5. WD MyPassport 4TB
Size: 4 TB
Need more bang for your buck? This Western Digital hard drive comes with 4 TB of storage capacity and is a solid device for reliability. This drive comes with a three year warranty and hardware encryption, while you can add a message to offer a "return if found" prompt. The device has read and write speeds of between 110 and 115 MP per second.
Size: 256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB
Okay, admittedly this is a solid state drive (SSD), but for those who want a slick transfer speed This slim external solid state drive from Adata offers a quieter, lighter package than many external hard drives. It is dust and water resistant and shockproof. Weighing just 100g it can almost fit in the palm of your hand. It offers 440 MB per second read and write speeds.
7. Samsung T5 500GB
Size: 500 GB, 1 TB
For something faster, Samsung's T3 solid state drive offers faster transfer than most normal hard drives and is a great expansion for tablets, smartphones and Windows devices. You can see a full list of compatible devices here. However, it only stores around 500GB of data, so although you get faster data transfer that is less storage for your external drive.
It has lightning fast transfer speeds up to 450 MB per second. It is also tiny, weighing just 51g, making it ideal for portability and practicality. It connects via USB-C.
Size: 3 TB
A great device for those who want to take lots of pictures on smartphones or digital cameras, this wireless drive allows you to easily download photos while on the move. Carry this portable device around with you and transfer files automatically, or transfer them later using a SD card. It has a ten hour battery life.
9. G-Tech G-Drive
Size: 4 TB, 8 GB
This powerful drive from G-Tech offers transfer speeds of up to 165 MB per second in a 4 TB hard drive. The drive comes formatted for Apple Macbooks and has a fanless design with heatsink to keep the drive cool and quiet. The G-Tech can connect via Thunderbolt or USB 3.0.
10. Seagate Backup Plus Slim
Sizes: 1 TB, 2 TB, 4 TB, 5 TB
Seagate's smaller drives are reliable and speedy and offer great value for money. This smaller drive is one of the most popular and best value out there. Offering 1 TB of storage it can be used with PC or Mac.
The Backup Slim Plus is fairly reliable. Although Seagate has been known to make drives with less than average reliability, they are among the cheapest external hard drives you can buy. Its data transfer rate is a respectable 100 MB per second and at just 159g it makes for an ideal portable option.
Hard drive brands
The most well-known hard drive brands include Seagate, Western Digital, Toshiba and Hitachi, while others such as Samsung, SanDisk and G-Tech also offer sleek and powerful external storage or solid state drives.
Smaller hard drives have less than 1 TB of storage, not much more than you get in some laptops. These are smaller and more expensive but offer faster boot up for files and programs, ideal for use inside a slim and powerful ultrabook or notebook.
If you are a video editor or a photographer you may want several terabytes of storage. Fortunately, hard drive storage is not that expensive to add, and a 4 TB hard drive will set you back less than £200 from some brands.
Until recently, most hard drives connected with USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 connections, but now many are moving over to USB-C, which offers 10 Gps of transfer speed, equivalent to twice the speed on offer from USB 3.0. Other forms of connection include wireless transfer to the hard drive.
Although hard drives tend to be pretty reliable there are few comprehensive reviews of how reliable drives are over a long time under strain, and nobody wants to loose years of cherished photos or videos.
Data from Backblaze shows Hitachi and Western Digital drives had some of the lowest failure rates last year, although these stats are largely limited to internal drives. To keep your files safe you may want to buy a more rugged hard drive.
Write and read speed
Read speed is essentially how long it takes to upload files from your head drive, while write speed is how long it takes to save something to the drive.
Most cheaper hard drives will have a fairly modest read/write speed of around 100 to 150 MB per second, not brilliant if you want to load or transfer lots of large video files.
Better hard drives will offer zippier speeds of 400 MB per second or better, although the prices will start to stack up at this range.
How much should I pay for a hard drive?
The price of an external hard drive can vary from anything between £50 to £250 for medium sized drives of between 1 TB and 4 TB. More expensive, faster hard drives can cost £250 or more, while seriously large and powerful hard drives can cost several hundred pounds.
You can also get external SSDs. These will cost more for the storage space, so a medium sized SSD of around 1 TB will be significantly more expensive than a hard drive of a similar size.
Jargon buster | Tech terminology
RAM: This is the laptop’s main memory where programs and files are stored. Smaller laptops may have 4GB or less, but powerful devices will have 8GB.
CPU: The central processing unit (or CPU) essentially runs the programs on the computer. There is a huge range of options here, but generally you should be after an Intel Core i5 or i7 6th or 7th generation processors.
GPU: The graphics card (graphics processing unit or GPU) produces the pictures and images you see. High-end laptops for gaming or video editing will need a more powerful graphics card, such as those from the Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon series.
Solid state drive (SSD) vs hard disk drive (HDD): Many laptops now come with an SSD, which uses flash memory to draw up files faster. However, these can be slightly limited in size and more expensive than traditional hard drives.